The head of Russia’s Investigative Committee has publicly called for a tightening of law and order within Russia and a more vigorous response to the West’s “hybrid war.” But will the Kremlin listen?
Investigative Committee Head Alexander Bastrykin during a parliamentary session. Photo: RIA Novosti
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In an emotional op-ed article written for one of the most respected political media outlets in Russia, Kommersant-Vlast, the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee, Alexander Bastrykin, outlined the urgent need to counterbalance what he calls “the hybrid war, launched by the U.S. and its allies.”
Importantly, the Kommersant-Vlast piece did not get the go-ahead signal from the Kremlin in advance – and that has led to rampant speculation in Russia’s expert community about the true goal of Bastrykin’s article. From a Western perspective, it would be as if the head of the FBI or CIA suddenly called for a new information war against Russia in a weekly news magazine without first seeking out the opinion of the White House.
Russia’s siloviki in the media
In fact, Bastrykin is not the first representative of the Russian law enforcement agencies (the so-called siloviki), who has used the media to articulate a certain point of view. Over the past decade, a number of other prominent members of the siloviki have used Kommersant for this purpose, as if this were a sort of ongoing talent contest.
In 2007 Victor Cherkesov, who was heading the Federal Drug Control Service at the time, came out with an article to remind his KGB peers about his rivalry with some law enforcement representatives heading up businesses in the private sector. In particular, he targeted Igor Sechin, the head of Russia’s largest oil company Rosneft and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Expressing his opinion in the media was a weapon of last resort – a way to regain access to the Russian president, to make the conflict public and to try to influence the decision-making process in the Kremlin. The tactics did not work out well and Cherkesov ended up as a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament having learned that publicity is not always good.
Likewise, the press secretary of the Russian Investigative Committee, Vladimir Markin, wrote several politically charged articles for Izvestiya criticizing the Russian system of management and corruption and campaigning against Skolkovo, the still evolving technological hub.
Similarly, Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev gave extensive interviews and wrote articles for a series of Russian media outlets, including Kommersant, Rossiyskaya Gazeta and Moskovskiy Komsomolets. Usually, he took aim at U.S. policy for its alleged plots against Russia. In doing so, he revealed the secret phobia of some representatives of the Russian elite.
Finally, last year Prosecutor General Yury Chaika used the pages of Kommersant to respond to the accusations of Russia’s rigorous anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny and, again, tried to shift responsibility to the shoulders of some “external stakeholders,” who were allegedly seeking to undermine Russia through the investigation of Navalny.
Conspiracy theories and the Kremlin elite
Thus, Bastrykin’s op-ed is not anything new or striking. It fits perfectly into the general ideology of the Russian political elite, which is driven by conspiracy theories.
This ideology reflects suspicion towards the United States and a yearning for control of the media and the Internet. According to the Kremlin, it is this lack of control of the Internet and media that undermines the regime’s stability. At the same time, the mindset of the law enforcement officers suggests that they are in search of a higher role of the state to prevent all sorts of color revolutions, which, according to them, stem from protests and the NGO sector.
There could be a number of reasons why Bastrykin, usually a very reticent and private official, decided to express himself so publicly in Russia’s most influential political newspaper. One cannot exclude that this was just a chance to unburden his mind and raise the problems he had been mulling over for a long period of time, taking into account the range of sweeping proposals expressed by Bastrykin in the article.
Among them is the censorship in the Internet as well as “the creation of the ideological policy of the government.” The latter means coming up with a national idea that would bring together ethnically diverse Russian people. In other words, he proposes reviving the state ideology at an official level.
In this context, one should not forget that under significant external pressure and due to the doctrine of the nationalization of the elites, Russian officials tend to compete in expressing patriotic sentiments. This is a sort of pledge of allegiance for them. The more radically patriotic they sound, the more chances they have to receive political favors.
Therefore, after Putin’s recent statements about the danger of regime change in Russia during a year in which Russia was holding parliamentary elections, it’s perhaps only natural that the Investigative Committee would want to demonstrate its absolute loyalty. By logical extension, this means that it is necessary to strengthen the countermeasures against those who seek to undermine Russia politically.
Another possible explanation is linked to concerns over changes currently taking place within the nation’s law enforcement structures. The country’s Interior Ministry is losing its influence, as Putin has established the National Guard, the new security body to fight terrorism and organized crime. This move has given a signal to other law enforcement officers, who may feel weakened and find it necessary to consolidate their positions.
The article’s goal might be to attract the President’s attention and remind him about the existence of other law enforcements agencies. However, Bastrykin’s call for being heard seems to be to no avail, as indicated by the comments of the Kremlin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, who said that Putin preferred to ignore the publication of the head of Russia’s Investigative Committee.
What will be the Kremlin’s response?
Nevertheless, Bastrykin and his colleagues could interpret the absence of a negative response from the President as some kind of implicit support. This is important to take into account, given the fact that June 2016 marks the end of the five-year term of Prosecutor General Yury Chaika, a long-time rival of Bastrykin, whom he may want to replace. In this case, the article may be used as a trump card in the rivalry between law enforcement officials within the system.
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Today the Russian leadership seems to remain hesitant about its future foreign policy toward the West. The current slight improvement in the Kremlin’s relations with the U.S. and Europe has resulted in the intensification of debates about Russia’s future policy towards the West.
So, it is quite rational for law enforcements officials to seek to fuel confrontational sentiments in the Kremlin’s inner circle, because it might bring them more political dividends and more powers. At the same time, Putin seems to demonstrate a more flexible and diplomatic approach – he seems to straddle between the need for order and liberty.
Of course, Putin is not fond of the unlimited freedom of the Internet. He is well aware of the use of NGOs as a potential instrument in “color revolutions.” He is completely against any extremism. But he also understands it is necessary to foster cooperation with the West for the sake of the country’s future development and does not want to be seen as an authoritarian leader.
From that perspective, the article by Bastrykin might have been an attempt to shift the balance in favor of a more confrontational policy with the West. For now, at least, it appears that the Kremlin has other plans.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.